Environment and development
in coastal regions and in small islands
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Haiti: Bringing the sea back to life

When Jean Wiener returned to Haiti in 1995 after many years of studying marine biology in the United States, it seemed to him that his country was slowly dying. Its shores were strewn with filth and the sea was full of blue plastic rubbish. There were fewer and fewer fish and precious few trees left.

"It was very urgent to do something and not let the country decay like that," he says. So he put together a marine environmental protection project based on the idea of "never give orders to fishermen: make suggestions and seek solutions by working with them."

The 31-year-old Wiener knows that overfishing (fishing occurs only in the shallow coastal waters due to lack of capacity), dwindling marine resources, deforestation and pollution are largely responsible for Haiti’s social and economic under-development and abject poverty. His broad project is backed by UNESCO, more specifically the platform for Environment and Development in Coastal Regions, which has chipped in with $33,000 – nearly half the estimated cost.

Specialist shortage

Wiener has set up a Foundation for the Protection of Marine Biodiversity (FoProBiM) with financial help from friends and relatives. But he is almost alone in his efforts. "There are only two or three people in the country with scientific and technical training in marine conservation," he points out. "We have a very serious human resources problem." Which means that Wiener wears many hats, such as secretary, driver and mailroom boy as well as being an investigator and scientific researcher.

He hopes to meet, in a flexible and imaginative way, the various needs of "those who use the sea" and above all to "educate them." According to a local UN Development Programme (UNDP) official, Jean-André Victor, "there are some general laws which apply to navigation and fishing in Haiti, but they are mostly not enforced."

Wiener wants the fishermen to organize themselves. "Existing fishermen’s associations must be strengthened and new ones encouraged where they’re needed," he says. This will give them "easier access to financial aid and fishing equipment than if they asked alone. The fishermen (90% of whom are illiterate, against a national average of 75%) will also win greater respect in the community." At present, there are 59 such associations in Haiti’s nine provinces. Some of them are busy picking up the rubbish off the beaches; 98% of it plastic waste.

Much of the data concerning research on Haiti’s coastline is scattered throughout the world, because specialists working in the country have often taken their work with them. To counter this, Wiener is setting up an information centre and bookshop, with books, surveys and marine maps, for students, enthusiasts and anyone else who wants to know more about coastal regions. He is also compiling a guide containing all the practical and statistical information about the fishing industry, the state of the country’s 1,500 km coastline and basic indices such as water temperature, salinity and bacteria level.

A common language

To make communication easier between the local people and marine resources managers, Wiener has over the past six months been patiently and methodically putting together an ethnobiological guide to the different kinds of fish, with their Creole, English and Latin names. "This isn’t easy," he says, "because some fish have seven different names." He lists them according to where they are found and how old they are, and gives them symbolic colours – red, white or black – "which has nothing to do with the colour they actually are" but indicates "who can eat which one and what time of the year, and also which ones can be sold to hotels and which ones can be given to poor people."

The guide can, for example, help people "work out a fish’s commercial use from its name," and ensure that fishermen and managers speak the same language. Wiener would also like to organize meetings to exchange ideas between Haitian fishermen and those from neighbouring Jamaica, who may have problems in common.

One of the main obstacles in Haiti is overfishing and shrinking stocks of fish, so Wiener is trying to encourage joint management – sharing out responsibility among those who use the sea’s resources. As he puts it, "population pressures, poverty and lack of information lead to overfishing because people think the more they fish, the more money they’ll earn. But overfishing wipes out some fish, usually those that fetch the best prices because they’re rare, while other fish sell for less. And so poverty deepens and the coastal areas decay irreversibly."  To break this vicious circle, attitudes have to be changed and fishermen shown that they cannot go on just taking things from the sea without protecting it against over-use, pollution and solid waste. There has to be education, hence the documentation centre, the bookshop and the guides.

Towards self-management

But this is not enough. To boost production, fish stocks have to be increased. "This can be done by building artificial reefs which can help some kinds of fish to breed," says Wiener. Through managing and supervising things by them-selves, the fishermen can protect the resources on their own. At the same time, they will have to "find other work, in agriculture for example, so they can earn a respectable living."

Wiener’s ideas are slowly catching on among the fishermen. Some have even taken up the challenge and are telling others they must stop overfishing and stop using the excuse that "if I don’t, someone else will." This kind of attitude has contributed to the crisis in Haiti’s fishing industry and is increasing the country’s present poverty.

By Cristina L‘Homme, in UNESCO Sources, January 1999 - N°108, p.7-8

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